California Wine Country: Discovering the Gems of Central Coast

By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov

Travelers to California inevitably put on their to-do lists drives to the wine country, and for a good reason. Venturing into the vintners’ realm is not only delicious, but also aesthetically pleasing and educational.

While it’s impossible to become an expert in the Golden State’s oenology in one or even several visits, a few well-orchestrated tastings in local wineries amid gorgeous rolling hills and shady oak groves provide enough education for beginner oenophiles, entice aficionados, and are definitely worth a trip.

Now, with the entire travel industry in the virus-induced hibernation, the lucky residents of the most populous state lose no time embarking on staycation trips to the California’s wine-growing regions that continue to produce world-renowned award-winning wines.

One of the most intriguing wine regions is slightly off the radar, and therefore so much more beautiful, closer to nature, uncrowded, welcoming, and full of fascinating surprises! We’re talking the ocean breeze-caressed, sun-kissed and fog-hugged Central Coast, where the collusion of the Pacific and Continental tectonic plates some 17 million years ago produced a fertile hybrid soil of marine shells, shale and sand with volcanic sediments and calcareous clays, yielding endless variations of complex earth, prone to growing interesting grapes.

The incredible geological richness of the region is reflected in more than 20 grape varieties that thrive here and in dozens of outstanding wineries, each with its own unique character, ambiance, and signature wines.

Here’s just a few of the unmissable wineries and tasting rooms that will make your visit to the area delightful and truly memorable.

Allegretto Wines in Paso Robles features small-lot wines, like boutique 2019 Chardonnay from Paraiso Vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands (145 cases) and 2017 Malbec from Paso Robles (125 cases) as well as this fall’s new releases: 2019 Pinot Noir; 2016 Tannat (100% estate tannat grapes, aged 22 months) and 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon—both from Allegretto Vineyards, plus 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Willow Creek Vineyard.

“We consider ourselves stewards of the land, shepherding our unique vineyards’ bounty from the ground to your glass,” states the winery. On our recent visit, from a tasting room sommelier Deborah Sowerby we’ve learned about the life cycle of the vines, the intricacies of timely harvesting, and of the organic certification and sustainable and biodynamic practices used by the Allegretto Wines, including screen-printed labels right on the bottle to avoid the unnecessary use of paper and plastic.  

An overnight stay at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort, recognized by AAA with a 4-diamond rating, and awarded Condé Nast Traveler’s 2019 Readers’ Choice Award, made our experience so much more alluring! As one of the top Southern California resorts, the Allegretto, opened in 2015, boasts a European-style campus with flowering rhododendrons, olive orchards, vineyards, and green lawns, dotted with marble statues among other eclectic artifacts, flowing fountains, and rose bushes. A spacious ochre building, fashioned after a Mediterranean palace with long hallways, patios and balustrades, accommodates guests in 171 rooms and suites with balconies and front gardens. Cello Ristorante and Bar on the premises serves Italian cuisine dinners and hearty American breakfasts, while a set of lounge chairs and cabanas around a swimming pool provides for a leisurely afternoon. 

To me, the best feature of the resort was a small, yet elegant and pristinely clean full-service spa that offers relaxing massages with aromatic oils, hypoallergenic and nut-free according to Jeanette, my extraordinary massage therapist.        

Sprawled on 20 acres of picturesque grounds, the Allegretto Vineyard Resort is a brain child of Douglas Ayres, proprietor, inspired by the beauty of Paso Robles. A large part of the resort land is planted with viognier, vermentino, malbec, tannat and cabernet sauvignon vines.  

The Allegretto Vineyard Resort is located at 2700 Buena Vista Drive in Paso Robles, California, 93446. For more information call 805.369.2500 or visit

A visit to the Niner Wine Estates is bound to be wonderful! Not only because the proprietor family of Richard and Pam Niner, founders, and their son Andy, president, produce 100% estate grown Bordeaux varietals with two skilled winemakers, Patrick Muran and Molly Bohlman, but also because the estate chef, Jacob Burrell, dishes up his masterful seasonal creations to accompany the wine tasting.

On the white wine tasting list during our visit there were 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Grenache Blanc, 2017 Silhouette du Coeur and 2017 Reserve Chardonnay (reserve wines are marked by a split label). A delicious blend of marsanne, greanche blanc and roussanne, Silhouette du Coeur got its name from a heart-shaped grove of 100-year-old oaks on a hill visible from the tasting room terrace. Heart Hill Vineyard is located in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles, while Bootjack Ranch, the original Niner’s vineyard, is in the Geneseo District. Besides the Bordeaux varietals planted on these lots, the winery produces small amounts of reserve single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons and an estate cabernet sauvignon.

The red wine tasting list started with 2018 Pinot Noir, 2016 Super Paso, and proceeded to 2016 Square Root and 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Our gourmet picnic lunch included the chef’s specialty—sourdough focaccia served with estate olive oil; house-made garden-grown charred eggplant spread with crispy garlic; fried chicken with carrot-calendula slaw, and a Monday special—pork belly with garden yellow tomato ragù, cheese polenta and a fried egg.

The Niner Wine Estates is located at 2400 Highway 46 West, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.239.2233 or visit

A lively outdoors wine tasting/lunch terrace surrounded by vineyards and flower beds is waiting at Opolo. The bustling winery is popular with wine lovers seeking great pairings, attentive service, and close resemblance to times gone by, when eager crowds used to fill up the gathering places of this kind.

Of course, the new normal is here with advance reservations, hand sanitizer sprays at the entrance, and thoughtfully distant tables, but the general mood is convivial and carefree due to the sheer number of guests in attendance, attracted by the delicious estate grown wines and housemade foodstuffs.

The Opolo owners, Rick Quinn and David Nichols, dedicated to variety and innovation since 1999, use their vast estate of about 280 acres for vastly different grapes, like pinot noir and sangiovese grown in Paso Robles Westside vineyards in the Adelaide hills, and syrah and cabernet sauvignon in their Eastside properties.   

Our tasting included 2019 Viognier, 2018 Montagna Mare (a proprietary blend of barbera and sangiovese, 2017 Tempranillo (an excellent 100% single varietal), 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2018 Mountain Zinfandel (the most popular crowd pleaser), accompanied by a housemade Italian sausage pizza with mozzarella and parmesan cheese from a wood-fired oven, and housemade lamb sausage served with pita bread, kajmak (fresh unripen cheese), chopped onions, lettuce & tomato.

Opolo Vineyards is located at 7110 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.238.9593 or visit

Sextant Wines greets visitors with a distinct circular entrance constructed of local limestone that leads to the opulently decorated tasting room (look at the ceiling light mosaic). The maritime-themed member’s lounge on the second floor, and the entire elegant facility induce a sense of appreciation for good wines as well as for art. This penchant for adventures—at sea and at vineyards comes from the proprietors Nancy and Craig Stoller who now produce 22 different wines. “Craig loves a unique bottle of wine,” says Chris Blake, director of sales at Sextant Wines, obviously proud of the winery’s rich history stemming from Sunridge Nurseries founded in 1977 that supplemented the entire wine country with highest quality rootstock; more than 440 acres of vineyards planted in three Central Coast AVAs; and unique wines from Old World varietal selections produced with the young and successful winemaker, Alex Frost.   

Taking advantage of the different soil types, similar to those in France, and the daily temperature oscillations beneficial to the grapes, Sextant Wines operates with six cabernet sauvignon clones, three cabernet franc clones, and the very best selections of merlot, petit verdot, and malbec to create outstanding wines that come from fully ripen fruit.

Our tasting experience included rare varietals, like Sextant 2019 X-Series Verdejo (only one acre of this precious Spanish transplant), Sextant 2019 Estate Grenache Blanc, and Sextant 2017 Holystone Zinfandel—all Paso Robles, all wonderful and highly original.

Sextant Wines is located at 2324 West Highway 46, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.542.0133 or visit

The Farm Winery is a living proof that good things come in small packages. All-red-wine production includes nine varietals, 800 cases a year, and two annual tasting events for about a thousand club members. The winery is so tiny it has no formal tasting room, however, the club and email distribution are thriving, and some Paso Robles restaurants carry the bottles with a rather recognizable label—a photo of a 1910 barn that still stands on the property.    

“We are two families, from California and Argentina, who bonded 30 years ago,” state the owners, Jim and Azmina Madsen referring to their close friends—the renowned winemaker Santiago Achaval and his family. “We farm the flagship cabernet, Cardinal, from 52-year old cabernet sauvignon vines in the Paso Robles Adelaida District – the oldest surviving cab vineyard in Paso.”

The winery takes pride in making small amounts of “slow, unhurried, carefully nurtured handmade wine” from superior fruit that reflects the terroir and microclimate of the Westside hill of Paso Robles.

This limited production of great wines is available for tasting by appointment, and the selection we tried on our visit included three cabernet-based new releases: The Big Game 2017 (73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Syrah, 6% Petit Verdot—138 cases), LPF 2016 (91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec—164 cases), and Old Union 2017 (100% Cabernet Sauvignon—102 cases).

The Farm Winery is located at 10920 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.400.3276 or visit

Besides tasting in wineries, which is thoroughly rewarding and educational, you might want to explore the shopping and food scene in Paso Robles.

Take a walk through the newest Paso Market Walk, a multi-use conglomerate of unique shops, eateries, coffee roasters, bakers, brewers, gelato makers, and even overnight rooms. A food court as much as a farmers’ market, this place is a great family stopover in your Central Coast road adventure.

Paso Market Walk is located at 1803 Spring Street, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.720.1255 or visit

Stop for a taste of locally grown and produced olive oil, vinegar and herb mixes at Pasolivo Olive Oil. Coming from the brand’s own Pasolivo Ranch in the heart of Paso Robles wine country, the award-winning extra virgin olive oils, like buttery Cucina, grassy medium-bodied Classic, delicately blended California, and bold peppery Tuscan, and their variously flavored peers—Basil, Lemon, Garlic Lemon, Lime, Cilantro Lime, Tangerine, Citrus, and Rosemary are all stored in artful black bottles to protect them from sunlight and extend their aromatic shelf lives.

Pasolivo Olive Oil is located at 1229 Park St, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.226.8800 or visit

Have a late dinner at Thomas Hill Organics Bistro & Wine Bar opened until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (until 9 p.m. other days of the week). A seasonally changing menu includes quite a few starters and mains utilizing produce from local farms, and a wine list of regional labels. Try grilled pork chop crusted in pink peppercorns with herbs, capers, and heirloom tomatoes roasted in bay leaf oil, and garnished with a roasted apple and celery puree or a sea bass with whipped chickpeas and asparagus. Gluten free, vegetarian and dairy free options are also available.

Thomas Hill Organics Bistro & Wine Bar is located at 1313 Park Street, Paso Robles, CA 93446. Call 805.226.5888 or visit

If leaving the hospitable Paso Robles bright and early, and heading south toward San Luis Obispo, don’t miss the neighborhood’s highlights of good food and wine!

Farmhouse Corner Market not far from a highway exit reminded me of popular Autogrills—the multi-purpose rest stops in Italy, luring travelers in with fresh espresso, hot lunches, various road necessities, children’s merchandize and of course clean bathrooms and outdoor areas where to stretch your legs. Much like these oases of convenience, but even better, because after all it’s a California establishment, Farmhouse Corner Market has it all! Its brightly colored, eye-pleasing interior includes whimsical kitchen sinks mounted on a wall and planted with ivies as well as a rainbow-colored children’s area and a bright yellow truck next to an ice cream stand (the famed Straus Creamery). There’s also a floral market so you could bring home a souvenir potted plant; artisan foods and goods on the shelves, and beautifully packed snacks to go and healthy treats, but first and foremost it’s an ideal breakfast/lunch place for a weary Central Coast traveler.

A bounty of locally-grown seasonal produce makes its way to your table seemingly in the course of mere minutes—everything’s just bursting with freshness and ripeness.

Do yourself a favor and savor Shirazi Salad of heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers, Breakfast Fried Rice of oh so many ingredients, or Dutch Baby Pancake with whipped ricotta and berries. You can’t go wrong with anything. Two couples of proprietors— Leanne and Ryan Harris, and Kari and Will Torres (the master Chef himself) really poured their hearts out in everything from the menu to design, and from ambiance to service.   

No wonder Farmhouse Corner Market was voted Best New Restaurant, Best Kid-Friendly Restaurant and Best Caterer for New Times 2020!

Farmhouse Corner Market is located at 1025 Farmhouse Lane, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. Call 805.465.7900 or visit

The best cool-climate varietals, like pinot noir and chardonnay thrive in Edna Valley, the coolest appellation in California, where Tolosa Winery grapes are farmed and made into single vineyard masterpiece wines by Frederic Delivert, the winemaker. What started with the Tolosa founder Robin Baggett’s intent of owning a cattle ranch in the area some 40 years ago, transformed into the vintner’s mission to develop the Valley’s rich soil into the ideal bed for precious clones through the careful farming practices at Edna Ranch, a SIP-certified vineyard.    

Founded in 1998, Tolosa Winery, committed to meticulous craftsmanship, uses traditional winemaking techniques and the newest technology to produce balanced and nuanced wines reflecting the ancient seabed and limestone terroir and the whimsical fog-wind-sun climate, apparently most suitable for the capricious tender fruit.  

On our visit, the 1772 Flight included aged in stainless steel Pure Chardonnay 2018, creamy 1772 Chardonnay 2018, peppery 1772 Pacific Wind Pinot Noir 2018, classic medium-bodied 1772 Pinot Noir 2017, rich juicy 1772 Syrah 2017, and Tolosa’s flagship wine, Primera 2018—a small-lot selection of the best of Edna Ranch, aged in the finest French oak.  

Tolosa Winery is located at 4910 Edna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. Call 805.782.0500 or visit